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Robots Are Taking Over Singapore's Hawker Centres

Picture of Sadali Mawi
Updated: 12 October 2017
Singapore’s ambitious pursuit of tech disruption has trickled its way into hawker centres. But can a self-moving, tray-collecting humanoid be the gateway for more tech disruption in Singapore’s traditional hawker centers?

Tables filled with leftover plates and trays from previous patrons are a common sight in Singapore’s food courts. Despite multiple campaigns by the government, the locals just seem to resist the idea of returning their own food trays, leaving cleaners (often in their 50s and 60s) to slowly clear these tables.

These cleaners now have another reason to rest their feet at work. The Singapore government has introduced new “productive” coffee shops, where tech innovations like cashless payments, self-ordering kiosks and robots are introduced to simplify processes. Yes, robots are now helping to collect empty trays of food!

Kopitiams from the future?

Called “Smart Tray Return Robots”, these humanoids move around the Kopitiams (local slang for foodcourts) automatically, and stop when a patron is standing in front of it to return a tray (motion cameras are installed to make this happen). When all compartments are full, these robots make their way to the cleaning point, where a cleaner will then unload the trays.

The initiative started as a pilot in 2016 in Koufu at Punggol Plaza, and has shown that the novelty of having a robot does encourage locals to return their trays. Besides tray-returning robots, self-vacuuming robots were also introduced to aid in maintaining cleanliness.

“Elmo” Floor-cleaning machines
“Elmo” Floor-cleaning machines | © Capital 95.8FM / Facebook

These cute floor-cleaning machines with an Elmo face roams freely to the delight of younger children (and the young at heart), in FoodTastic, a newly opened “automated” Kopitiam in Choa Chu Kang.

Are robots enough?

With more daily processes being automated, it is easy to assume that one day, technology will rule out humans. In the case of Singapore’s hawker centres, it might seem likely, but it will take more time and incentives for locals to slowly switch their habits.

Singapore’s newest hawker center, Jurong Hawker Center, features an RFID tray-returning system that dispenses $0.20 to a patron each time they return a tray. This is the first time that patrons have been rewarded monetarily for returning their trays. It’s a welcome feature that eases the jobs of cleaners.

The hawker center that seats 500 also features three smart tray return robots and options for cashless payment, encouraging more hawkers from older generations to embrace cashless payments to omit the otherwise manual process.

By introducing robots into hawker centers, the Singapore Government is showing its willingness to embrace technology and ease the manual processes in our daily lives. It’s a strong indication that other sectors here are just waiting for the next big tech disruption.

For now, let’s do our part and return our trays after eating our daily bowl of Mee Rebus, robot or no robot.